The Last Refuge of the Macho

Obama Administration

This is a hoot.

Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) has chaired the Senate’s Intelligence Committee for five years. So when she suggested last month that investigators should make public a report on the U.S.’s interrogation techniques because it would “ensure that an un-American, brutal program of detention and interrogation will never again be considered or permitted,” one might have seen it as the strong words and fair assessment of a person who has deep experience on the issue.

But on Fox News Sunday this week, Bush-era National Security Agency and Central Intelligence Agency Director Michael Hayden suggested that Feinstein actually encouraged the public release of the interrogation techniques report because of her emotions.

Citing specifically Feinstein’s line about not using such techniques again, Hayden told Fox News Sunday host Chis Wallace, “Now that sentence that, motivation for the report, Chris, may show deep emotional feeling on part of the Senator. But I don’t think it leads you to an objective report.”

I’m sure I speak for other female persons when I say that “You’re just being emotional” is what a man says to a woman when she has just told him something he doesn’t want to deal with or even think about. He can’t actually respond, so he dismisses her as “emotional.” Of course, he is being “logical.” Like men aren’t the ones who start bar fights.

See also Booman on why some people need to be in priso.


Free Speech and Free-er Speech

Obama Administration

I’ve written in the past that a lot of righties seem to think the freedom of speech clause in the First Amendment includes a right to not be disagreed with. Josh Marshall about America’s whiny, paranoid mega-wealthy and notes that seems to be what they want, too.

Extremely wealthy people – enabled by a series of key Supreme Court decisions as recently as yesterday – want to be able to spend gargantuan amounts of money in the political process and remain essentially private persons who don’t get knocked around or criticized like everyone else in the political arena.

See also “If you criticize wealthy donors, you’re basically Hitler.”

Chris Hayes’s book Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy” makes the point that our institutions both public and private are being run by a class of people who got what they’ve got by circumstances largely not of their making; are sheltered from the realities most of us deal with; and who ultimately don’t know what they’re doing, but are so sheltered from the consequences of their own actions they don’t realize they don’t know what they’re doing. Donald Rumsfeld is a classic example. One suspects most of our captains of industry aren’t much sharper. But, y’know, they have lots of money, so we’re supposed to respect them.


We’re Now the United States of Koch Inc.

Obama Administration

We are so screwed. See also.


April Fools

Obama Administration

Have you ever considered that life itself is an April Fool’s joke? That would explain a lot.

Anyhoo — yesterday there was a big rush on the ACA insurance exchange websites, to the point that the system crashed for a while. A few righties couldn’t resist the urge to snark about that, overlooking the fact that, um, the system crashed because boatloads of people were trying to use it.

The signup surge has the Right in denial — it’s their fallback position on everything — and making claims that the Administration is lying about numbers, or else that the people getting insurance are either not paying for it or had insurance anyway. Jonathan Cohn takes apart their arguments. The bottom line is that there has been a huge backlog of people who wanted insurance but couldn’t get it, or who wanted insurance that wasn’t eating a disproportionate amount of their income and now those people are coming forward to use the ACA.

The ever-optimistic Brian Beutler thinks the ACA battle has been won. Maybe. I do think that the Right has way over-invested in Obamacare being a political winner for them, and if events continue on their current trajectory, it probably won’t be.

The question that won’t die — even on Fox News — is why can’t the Republicans come up with an alternative plan? And of course, they have. Every few months they announce with great fanfare that they have an alternative plan, and it gets a little flurry of attention, and rightie media triumphantly announces that the problem is solved, and then everybody forgets about that plan. And a few months later they announce a new new plan, which turns out to be a tweak of the last one, and then that one is forgotten.

And this happens because their plans aren’t serious. They’re just props. Because what they really want to do — eliminate or privatize the safety net and just let an unregulated private insurance industry gouge us any way it likes — is a political non-starter, and they know it. Their only hope of getting what they want is by doing it in increments — dismantling the ACA, then cutting safety net programs and insurance regulations by persuading us that it will make everything better, because free markets and capitalism and makers not takers.

So whatever “plans” they come up with have to serve that incremental purpose, which means they aren’t designed primarily to help people get health care.

Paul Krugman reminds us that the ACA was their plan, which has a lot to do with why it’s so messy.

Ross Douthat, in the course of realistically warning his fellow conservatives that Obamacare doesn’t seem to be collapsing, goes on to tell them that they’re going to have to come up with a serious alternative.

But Obamacare IS the conservative alternative, and not just because it was originally devised at the Heritage Foundation. It’s what a health-care system that does what even conservatives say they want, like making sure that people with preexisting conditions can get coverage, has to look like if it isn’t single-payer.

I don’t really think one more repetition of the logic will convince many people, but here we go again. Suppose you want preexisting conditions covered. Then you have to impose community rating — insurers must offer the same policies to people regardless of medical history. But just doing that causes a death spiral, because people wait until they’re sick to buy insurance. So you also have to have a mandate, requiring healthy people to join the risk pool. And to make buying insurance possible for people with lower incomes, you have to have subsidies.

The box they are in is that they can’t come up with a serious alternative. There is no possible serious alternative on the Right. Not one that will actually help people get health care, anyway. All they can do is obstruct and play legislative theater with their prop plans.


There are Known Knowns, and Known Unknowns, and Then There’s the Stuff We Know But Ignore

disasters, natural and unnatural

Numbers of dead and missing from last week’s massive mud slide in Oso, Washington, keep shifting around, and every news story has different numbers. As of today there are somewhere between 18 to 25 dead and another 30 to 90 or so unaccounted for.

Last week the county officials who control land use permits said there was no way to have predicted the disaster. Now we know that at least a couple of studies had warned that it was going to happen, precisely where and how it happened. The only thing they didn’t know was when. Somebody chose to ignore the warnings.

The most recent study was done in 2010. It was commissioned by the county to comply with federal law. The area that was buried was ranked as high risk for being buried.

Also, geologists surveyed the area back in 1999 and predicted the area would suffer a “catastrophic failure” in precisely the spot that failed.

It wasn’t that hard to predict, apparently, because the earth on the hillside shifted around a lot, especially after heavy rain. One of the geologists went back to look at the area after a large 2006 mudslide that didn’t hurt anybody.

“There was new construction,” he said. “The sound of hammering competed with the sound of [destabilized] trees snapping after the mudslide. I can’t believe that someone wanted to build their home there. It was a very bad idea.”

Charity Prueher, 41 and raised in Oso, said homeowners rarely mentioned the slides. When they did, the coursing mud was considered a small disruption, more of an annoyance than a major problem.

“They’re so content with the beautiful place where they live, they don’t think anything would happen,” Prueher said.

Prueher said she helped clear debris from the 2006 mudslide when she was a volunteer firefighter. The thought that another slide could come that was far worse never occurred to her.

Timothy Egan writes that the hillsides became dangerous because they were overlogged. He had visited the area 25 years ago and watched a massive mudslide then. He adds,

Yes, but who wants to listen to warnings by pesky scientists, to pay heed to predictions by environmental nags, or allow an intrusive government to limit private property rights? That’s how these issues get cast. And that’s why reports like the ones done on the Stillaguamish get shelved. The people living near Oso say nobody ever informed them of the past predictions.

Just upriver from the buried community along the Stillaguamish is Darrington, a town with a proud logging tradition. The folks who live there are self-described Tarheels, transplanted from Southern Appalachia several generations ago after their own timber mills went bust. They hold a terrific bluegrass festival every year, and they show up in force at public hearings where government and environmentalists are denounced with venom. It’s not their fault that the earth moved, certainly. But they should insist that their public officials tell them the plain truth when the science is bad news.

Most of us live somewhere where there’s a potential for natural disaster. I live close enough to Long Island Sound that flooding from a big hurricane is a real concern. But that’s not likely to be a sudden disaster. I’ve told myself that if there’s ever a prediction of a big hurricane I would pack up my essential stuff and Sadie Awful Bad Cat and go somewhere else, away from water, until it’s safe to come back. There was only minor damage in this neighborhood from Sandy, though, so it would have to be a worse hurricane than Sandy to flood the place out. I don’t think I’m being entirely crazy to live here.

Still, the human capacity to ignore what you don’t want to acknowledge never ceases to amaze.


Stuff to Read

Iraq War

The NY Times is publishing a four-part series called “The Certainty of Donald Rumsfeld” by Errol Morris that is brilliant, and I think most of you will enjoy it. Here are the links:

Part 1: Three Reporters

Part 2: The Known and the Unknown

Part 3: A Failure of Imagination

Part 4: Absence of Evidence Isn’t Evidence of Absence


Data 1, Righties 0

Obama Administration

Erick Son of Erick and other righties have been having a grand time making fun of Matt Yglesias and calling him stupid because they think they caught him in a mistake. Except they didn’t.

Yglesias made a video titled “How Scary Is the Public Debt?” intended to explain that the public debt is not scary. Yglesias’s figure for the public debt is lower than what the Treasury says is the national debt, because Yglesias left out debt owned by one branch of government to another branch. But this point flew right over their muddled little heads, and they’ve been hooting about Yglesias making a mistake for the past several hours in complete oblivion of what Yglesias actually was talking about. John Aziz explains this.

Other than the number discrepancy that wasn’t actually a discrepancy, the righties’ basic issue with Yglesias is that they disagreed with him and don’t like him very much, but typically, they come up short explaining why. Mostly they just insulted Yglesias.

When Erickson eventually got around to trying to rebut Yglesias (after writing 263 words in a 394 word piece), the RedState editor pulled out arguments that were brief and devoid of both context and substance. . . . after that, Erickson was right back to bashing Vox’s “left-wing propaganda.”


Of course, the real issue is that on the Right it is apostasy to say that the public debt is not scary, so what Yglesias says must be propaganda. Yeah, that’s it.


Hobby Lobby

Obama Administration

So SCOTUS heard arguments on the Hobby Lobby case yesterday, and all we know for sure is that three women justices means at least three of them actually understand how contraceptives work. Unfortunately, there are only three.

There is a lot of speculation today about Antonin Scalia, but no one is speculating how he will vote. Obviously, he will side with Hobby Lobby. The speculation is about how he’s going to side with Hobby Lobby while ignoring his own past opinions on other religious liberty cases.

Dahlia Lithwick thinks the contraception mandate is doomed. If it is, this may be a “win” the Right will come to regret.


The Easiest Way to Make a Small Fortune

Obama Administration

… is to inherit a large fortune. Old joke. However, these days it’s even easier to inherit a large fortune and make an even larger one. It’s practically idiot-proof, actually.

A new book by French economist Thomas Piketty is causing quite a stir because Piketty just plain comes out and says that the malefactors of great inherited wealth are eating the world economy. Krugman says,

Mr. Piketty, arguably the world’s leading expert on income and wealth inequality, does more than document the growing concentration of income in the hands of a small economic elite. He also makes a powerful case that we’re on the way back to “patrimonial capitalism,” in which the commanding heights of the economy are dominated not just by wealth, but also by inherited wealth, in which birth matters more than effort and talent. …

… It’s generally understood that George W. Bush did all he could to cut taxes on the very affluent, that the middle-class cuts he included were essentially political loss leaders. It’s less well understood that the biggest breaks went not to people paid high salaries but to coupon-clippers and heirs to large estates. True, the top tax bracket on earned income fell from 39.6 to 35 percent. But the top rate on dividends fell from 39.6 percent (because they were taxed as ordinary income) to 15 percent — and the estate tax was completely eliminated.

Some of these cuts were reversed under President Obama, but the point is that the great tax-cut push of the Bush years was mainly about reducing taxes on unearned income. And when Republicans retook one house of Congress, they promptly came up with a plan — Representative Paul Ryan’s “road map” — calling for the elimination of taxes on interest, dividends, capital gains and estates. Under this plan, someone living solely off inherited wealth would have owed no federal taxes at all. …

… Why is this happening? Well, bear in mind that both Koch brothers are numbered among the 10 wealthiest Americans, and so are four Walmart heirs. Great wealth buys great political influence — and not just through campaign contributions. Many conservatives live inside an intellectual bubble of think tanks and captive media that is ultimately financed by a handful of megadonors. Not surprisingly, those inside the bubble tend to assume, instinctively, that what is good for oligarchs is good for America.

Matt Bruenig writes,

A 2011 study by Edward Wolff and Maury Gittleman found that the wealthiest 1 percent of families had inherited an average of $2.7 million from their parents. This was 447 times more money than the least wealthy group of people — those with wealth less than $25K — had inherited. In between the wealthiest and least wealthy groups, inheritance levels ran in exactly the direction you would expect: the wealthier a group of people was, the more they had inherited.

As outrageously lopsided as these inheritance disparities seem, they only reflect half of the inheritance problem. The funny thing about piles of wealth is that they deliver to their owners passive, unearned streams of income variously called rents, dividends, profits, capital gains, interest and so on. Those who get big inheritances can park those inheritances in investment accounts that just get bigger and bigger without them having to lift a finger. As a result, the gaping inheritance disparity actually grows even more gaping each year after the inheritances have been received. …

…Children of the wealthy could wind up receiving increasingly larger shares of the national wealth bequeathed to them, wealth that will allow them to generate soaring incomes from capital income alone. If that happens, the meritocratic rhetoric that we use to justify America’s extraordinary levels of inequality will only become even more preposterous and delusional. Inheriting big piles of wealth and then using those piles to bring in even more unearned wealth is the exact opposite of meritocracy.



Conservative Book Sales Slump; Crayons Next?

Obama Administration

Apparently the bloom is off the rose for conservative book imprints.
McKay Coppins writes that the political conservative book genre is in even worse shape than the publishing industry as a whole. However, I’m not buying the excuse. The excuse is that by setting up exclusive imprints for conservative books, publishers have isolated those books from the mainstream marketplace of ideas. They are now a niche market, which limits their distribution and sales.

I say this always was a niche market, marketed almost exclusively through right-wing media to a niche audience, and if these books aren’t selling like they used to there has to be another reason.

McKay doesn’t say anything about the bulk sales that used to push right-wing books up the best-seller list. McKay says that the web “has decimated the subscription-based “book clubs” that launched a slew of conservative best-sellers in the ’90s and early 2000s,” but those book clubs still exist, and they were still considered a viable marketing tool as recently as 2010. Alex Pareene wrote an article in 2010 musing why George W. Bush’s post-presidency book sold more copies than Bill Clinton’s post-presidency book (really?) and the most plausible reason was …

Conservative book clubs

The sales of books by awful right-wing authors like Jonah Goldberg are boosted by an entire industry dedicated to … boosting the sales of books by awful right-wing authors. Conservative book clubs purchase tens of thousands of copies and right-wing think tanks order right-wing books in bulk. There’s probably a bit more genuine demand for George W. Bush’s wisdom than, say, Laura Ingraham’s wit, but every little bit helps. And there was no progressive equivalent of the right-wing book-buying machine to boost Clinton’s book when it was released.

Steve Benen wrote in 2010,

This is a long-running phenomenon — conservative books nearly always outsell liberal books in large part because of bulk orders. A couple of months ago, for example, Mitt Romney boosted sales of his book by requiring various schools, think tanks, and institutions to buy thousands of copies in exchange for his speeches. Various conferences and Republican outlets do this all the time.

Paul Waldman wrote recently,

As a liberal who has written a few books whose sales were, well let’s just say “modest” and leave it at that, I’ve always looked with envy at the system that helps conservatives sell lots and lots of books. The way worked was that you wrote a book, and then you got immediately plugged into a promotion machine that all but guaranteed healthy sales. You’d go on a zillion conservative talk shows, be put in heavy rotation on Fox News, get featured by conservative book clubs, and even have conservative organizations buy thousands of copies of your books in bulk. If you were really lucky, that last item would push the book onto the bestseller lists, getting you even more attention.

It worked great, for the last 15 years or so. But McKay Coppins reports that the success of conservative publishing led to its own decline. As mainstream publishers saw the money being made by conservative houses like Regnery and the occasional breakthrough of books by people like Allan Bloom and Charles Murray, they decided to get into the act with right-leaning imprints of their own. But now, “Many of the same conservatives who cheered this strategy at the start now complain that it has isolated their movement’s writers from the mainstream marketplace of ideas, wreaked havoc on the economics of the industry, and diminished the overall quality of the work.”

Um, Regnery was not, in effect, a niche imprint? Do most book buyers give a hoo-haw about the imprint?

I think it’s usually true that if you are a niche author, you may be better off going with a small publisher that specializes in marketing your sort of book to your sort of audience rather than with one of the big publishers. But conservative books were unusual among niche books in that they had the huge national media infrastructure Waldman talks about to use for promotion. And that infrastructure is still in place.

It used to be that Ann Coulter could crank out the same book every year, titled Liberals Hate God and America and Want to Eat Your Babies, and be all over television promoting it for awhile, being taken seriously by interviewers. Did people finally catch on that if you’ve read one Coulter book, you’ve read ‘em all, and there’s really no point buying another one?

My guess is that the demise of suburban mall bookstores might really be a factor, but that would not have impacted book club sales. Whoever was buying copies in bulk may have stopped doing that. There may be a glut of too many books titled Liberals Hate God and America and Want to Eat Your Babies authored by various cable bobbleheads.

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